1 OCTOBER 1983, Page 16

The press

The politics of words

Paul Johnson

m on a sharp learning-curve, fellow 1 Liberals', admitted their candidate at the recent Penrith by-election. Party con- ferences are forcing-houses for newly- fashionable clichés and neologisms, and torture chambers in which innocent words are bent, twisted and racked into alien meanings. It is odd that public figures, who live by words, should pay so little regard to their real meaning. For instance, if a speaker, to drive home his point, uses the phrase 'quite literally', one can be

reasonably certain he means the opposite. `Mrs Thatcher', said a TUC delegate, 'is quite literally tearing apart our hospitals.' The 'absentee landlords' of the Falklands, claimed a speaker at the Liberal Assembly, operate 'a system geared quite literally to taking the wool off the islanders' backs'.

The expression the Liberals love best is 'community politics', 'community' being one of the most over-used and deeply suspect of all words today. 'Community politics' is not, as you might assume, a silly Liberal expression for local government but an unpleasant form of pressure-group bullying in which small juntas of activists stampede ordinary people into accepting things they don't really want and would never vote for in normal circumstances. I see that Roger Scruton, in his recent and very useful Dictionary of Political Thought, defines 'community politics' as 'used to describe UK Liberal Party politics in by- elections during the early 1970s'. The ex- pression 'commune politics' (CP for short) would be more accurate. It might alert peo- ple to the real tendency of such activities 'commune' was first used in the French Revolution in 1792 — especially since the primary meaning of 'community', accor- ding to the OED, is 'the quality of apper- taining to all in common; common owner- ship, liability etc'. A 'community' thus organised for a political purpose (that is, without formal voting under the rule of electoral law) is, in effect, a soviet and has no democratic validity.

'Community' is also rapidly picking up some gruesome non-political usages, but again with a pressure-group undertone. In the Seventies, if not earlier, the Washington press started talking about 'the Defence Community', meaning not only the more articulate elements in the Pentagon but, more especially, academic, think-tank and institute experts who specialised in defence matters. Other 'communities' have emerg- ed. For some time now upmarket news- papers have been referring to 'the heritage community', a group devoted to preserving ancient buildings etc, which ranges from wealthy amateurs like Lord Montague, through romantics such as Sir John Bet- jeman to the professional preservers. One of the latter, Sir Roy Strong, says the term 'is beginning to make me shudder'. He snootily blames democracy, telling readers of the Times last Saturday: 'Heritage was essentially a 1970s cult which has now spread down the social scale'. Marghanita Laski, another typical member of this com- munity, doesn't like 'heritage' either and wants to substitute 'the national entail' in- stead. I can't see that getting far.

At Harrogate last week there was

reference to 'the peace studies community', another neat example of two suspect usages coalescing — a `Senior Lecturer in Peace Studies' is, one imagines, an experienced political activist employed by the taxpayer to disseminate CND propaganda at a second-rate university. Again, 1 heard a Liberal delegate refer to 'the caring com- munity', meaning those hard-face social workers who have done well out of the welfare state. However much one protests, the monstrous 'three Cs' — 'caring, com- passionate and concerned' — continue their triumphant march across the political plat- forms and the newspaper pages. 'Caring now means little more than 'pro-public ex- penditure'. Last week 1 even heard it used as a noun: 'How dare the Government claim they have any caring for the Health Service?' Nowadays, if you refer to so- meone as 'a caring person' you are either a rank-and-file Guardian reader or mickey- taking. At the SDP conference at Salford I noted the expression 'he's not the concern- ed type at all'.All three Cs are now too in- delibly stained with soggy ideology for nor- mal usage, and this is a pity, for 'compas" sionate' used to be a fine word.

So of course did 'gay', a delightful adjec- tive (and name) which is I fear irretrievably lost. A pamphlet published by the 'Liberal Gay Action Group', which I got last week, in Harrogate, is another case of dual misuse, referring to the right to 'the free ex- pression of the gay community'. It clam% that 'each community in the land is im- poverished by the lack of a strong gaY voice'. On the contrary: the brutal hijack- ing of this word by an activist pressure- group has impoverished our language and rendered Inany passages in our literature ludicrous. 1 don't believe this odious larceny would have been successful had not 'gay' been a sub-editor's word: that IS short and easily fitted into headlines, along with ban, clash, chaos, bite, slash, boost, shock, fury, hit and others beloved of the backbench tribe. Like 'hike' — now, I see, adopted by the Times, as in 'Tax Hike' coined in the US and tamely adopted here.

Trade union leaders, by contrast, prefer

polysyllables, as one noticed again at this year's TUC at Blackpool. You won't catch them calling a strike anything but 'In- dustrial action', a practice tamely followed


by the BBC. Labour was not so much in decline, according to one TUC baron, as 'moving into a minority situation', and he blamed this on the media for 'creating a hostile environment'. The press, in par- ticular, tends to arouse furious verbositY among the brothers. When the Daily Mirror published a photo of the Brut hair-lacquer reposing in Arthur Scargill's briefcase, his NUM colleague Eric Clarke, president of the Scottish miners, went angrily to the rostrum in Scargill's defence and produced the gem of the conference season so far: I am disgusted when I see photographs of a so-called situation [sic] peering into the attache-case because he has a certain cosmetic accoutrement in it'. That beats even Ambassador Annenberg.